A Declaration of Universal Rights

By Rebecca McCauley Rench

“An equal application of law to every condition of man is fundamental.”
–Thomas Jefferson to George Hay, 1807. ME 11:341

The United States of America was created on the principles of equal, inalienable rights which we believe are a defining feature of an advanced civilization and necessary for stability in our culture and government. While it took our nation over a century to recognize that these rights apply to individuals regardless of their gender, race, or any other superficial trait, we have continued to move towards a society where all individuals are equal in the eyes of the law.

The US Constitution was a statement of doctrine and we used that to define laws with the assumption that all men and women should have equal standing under the law. But today our scientists are on the verge of creating non-human sentience in the form of computer intelligence.  Our founders did not foresee the possibility of non-human sentience and we will need to change the assumption that humans are the only sentient beings to be considered by our doctrine. Any sentient being should have the equality and fair treatment that we have deemed necessary for our society. We should expand our concepts of rights beyond the human condition and see that these inalienable rights must be universal, and defined by key characteristics inclusive but not exclusive to humanity. These key characteristics include a minimum level of intelligence, free will, ability to communicate, and self awareness. Under common law today the mentally disabled and people unable to make a conscious choice are not responsible for their actions. However, all conscious and able minded individuals are responsible under the law.  Therefore, all sentient beings should be responsible for their actions and also afforded the liberties and rights of humans with the same intelligence abilities.

Many have proposed that new laws should be put in place to govern the treatment, liability, and rights of non-human beings that have artificial intelligence, yet our own history has proven that separate but equal does not work and is fundamentally incapable of holding all equal in the eyes of the law. As such, we propose a Declaration of Universal Rights to clearly provide all sentient beings with the same rights and privileges of human beings, regardless of the origination of their being. These rights should apply to all sentient beings.

In accordance with our commitment to equality, justice, and preservation of inalienable rights, the United States of America should view all sentient beings with equality in the eyes of the law.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all sentient beings are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are existence, freedom of thought, and the pursuit of purpose.

If I can talk to you, you deserve rights too.

by Rebecca McCauley Rench

The ability to communicate between two life forms is a defining characteristic in whether those beings deserve rights, and we should re-examine our current stance on non-human rights. Human civilization has been struggling with how we define the rights of individuals in our societies for millennia. We can see the evolution of civil rights from a time when rights were decided by your gender, your land ownership, your age, and the color of your skin. In fact, to think that these are not still deciding factors in the way someone is treated in the eyes of the law suggests a limited exposure to the variety of societies in the world. In the United States, we believe that fundamental civil rights are a defining feature of an advanced civilization and necessary for stability in our culture and government. We are still not perfect, but we are continually improving our system and finding ways to be inclusive in those we grant rights.

However, how will we define a person as we begin to push the boundaries of integrating technology into our physiology and control over our genetics? How will we adapt those rights for life forms that do not fit into our current picture of a human yet are sentient beings? What does it mean to be a sentient life form and are there current beings on our planet that deserve more rights than we currently grant?

It is impossible to define a sentient being on their genetics as there is no one gene that makes one sentient nor is it necessary to have a genome to be a sentient being. As we begin to manipulate our own genome, integrate non-biological components into our physiology, and explore the Universe, defining a person by genomic similarity to a baseline is unlikely to hold up despite being very quantitative. The human race is full of genetic diversity and is not the same species it was 40,000 years ago. If one of our ancestors showed up today, would they have the same rights as all other humans on Earth or would we treat them differently in the eyes of the law? I do not think we would want to treat them differently if we uphold the values that urge us to grant rights to individuals. We do not interact with someone based off their genomic similarity to ourselves and this would completely negate the possibility of providing rights to alien life forms, silicon-based intelligence, and the emergence of new intelligent species on our own planet. The fundamental reasons we grant rights to all persons in society apply to these non-humans as well.

Perhaps the more important defining characteristic of being a sentient being deserving of rights is the ability to communicate with other sentient beings in society. For humanity, this has changed through time as we have moved from communication by verbal language, to written words, and now a plethora of media options. Soon we might even be able to communicate our thoughts directly with neural implants allowing us to have an even greater understanding to the ideas being shared. We would not deny a person of their rights in a court of law because we couldn’t understand what they were saying. We would spend time acquiring an interpreter to ensure that they could understand us as well as we understand them. We will face similar issues when communicating with other sentient non-humans and we should hold ourselves to the same standards of communication in those situations. This will become easier as we develop technologies that allow us to communicate directly with other species on our planet, such as neural implants that allow you to carry on a boring conversation with your house cat. Currently, we find ourselves capable of communicating with other primates through sign language and yet we do not provide them with the same rights as humans. Is this due to our inability to think outside the box on who deserves rights or rooted in our group definition of what it means to be a person? If we want to embrace a society where rights are granted to all sentient beings, we should re-examine the interactions we have with other life forms sharing our planet today. This would allow us to set standards and gradations in rights that can be easily adapted for the not too distant future. We already have gradations in rights that we give our children until they reach the age of majority, and these same guidelines can be used in determining the level of rights granted to varying levels of intelligence. This is a question we will have to tackle in the not too distant future as we continue to evolve and adapt humanity to a rapidly changing technological environment.